Van Morrison is 70 today, and I’m listening to his birthday concert, live on the radio from Cyprus Avenue in Belfast. Yes, it’s that Cyprus Avenue, where he made us all, no matter how far away, imagine how it would feel to be caught one more time.
The last time I saw him was at the Albert Hall six years ago, when he performed Astral Weeks with a band including Jay Berliner, who played guitar on the original 1968 recording, and the cellist Terry Adams, a much-admired member of his Caledonia Soul Orchestra in 1973. It was an excellent concert (as it needed to be, given the price he was charging for tickets), and later it was possible to relive it with the album recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl, although nothing could replace the soul-baring tension of the original.
The first time I saw him was at Fillmore East, New York, in April 1970, a few weeks after the release of Moondance, with the tight little band that had recorded it, including John Platania on guitar and Jack Schroer on saxophones. He was utterly brilliant, and I seem to remember that he kept his eyes tightly closed throughout the set. Most of the songs were from the new album, but he also did a wonderful version of “Cyprus Avenue” which led Geoffrey Cannon to describe him (in the Guardian) as “bursting with his adolescent passions, now past, stuttering in his need to understand the urgency of sexual desire, and of visions of beauty.”
I was at Birmingham Town Hall in 1973 for his triumphant return to Britain after a seven-year absence. That was the Caledonia Soul Orchestra tour, which climaxed with an electrifying gig at the Rainbow in London (partly commemorated in the great live double album titled It’s Too Late to Stop Now). The gig I wish I’d been to was the one at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California, in 1994, captured as A Night in San Francisco, featuring John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Jimmy Witherspoon, Candy Dulfer, and Georgie Fame on Hammond B3. In the medleys of “Moondance” / “My Funny Valentine” and “In the Garden” / “You Send Me” / “Allegheny”, Van is at his very best.
In Belfast this afternoon — via BBC Radio Ulster, upon whose producers and engineers may a thousand blessings fall — he’s just done “Moondance”, “Born to Sing” with Chris Farlowe, an utterly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, and an ultra-cool medley of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Parchman Farm” and Slim Harpo’s “Don’t Start Cryin’ Now”, which was Them’s first single in 1964, when Van was 19. Maybe if I cross my fingers and hold my breath he’ll do “Vanlose Stairway”, about a girl in Copenhagen, with its great opening lines: “Send me your picture… send me your pillow….” But it’s his birthday. He can do what he wants.
* The photograph is from irishrocknrollmuseum.com